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How does a building simply collapse in the United States? This was a question running through several minds the day the story broke of the condo collapse in Miami, Florida. While the reason behind the collapse is still unknown, a narrative has begun to form over the failure to heed warning signs of a building in structural trouble.
Signs of Trouble
In 2018, the condominium association received an engineer’s report stating that the building had major structural damage. The engineer’s report warned that leaking water was leading to deteriorating concrete and that the failed waterproofing was causing major structural damage to the concrete structural slab. According to the engineer’s report, costs to repair the building were approximately $9.1 million. The association did not start an assessment of the major structural damage until two years after receiving the report.
On April 9, 2021, months before the building collapse, correspondence from the board president of the building noted that the concrete deterioration was accelerating and that observable damage in the garage had gotten worse. In April, assessments for the cost of repairs had expanded to $15 million. The board ended up approving the $15 million in repairs.
Who to Blame
While it is still unclear what caused the building to collapse, the condominium association or its board certainly faces legal risk as they were in charge of approving repairs to the building. Moreover, the condominium association was made aware of major structural defects, including leaks leading to corrosion of concrete and cracks on the concrete base, three years before the building collapsed. The structural repairs were necessary in order to pass the recertification inspection. As such, the costs of repairs were inevitable. The two-year delay in approving repairs will potentially cost the condominium association much more than the $15 million in repairs. The reason for the delay is still unexplained, but the condominium association’s attorney claims that the engineering report did not warn of a major safety risk or that the building was in danger of collapse. The attorney notes that the condominium association board members were unaware of any dangers because several of them lived in the building, including one that is still missing after the collapse. In other words, those in charge of the condominium association did not think a building collapse was a possible consequence of their inaction.
Building collapses like what we saw in Miami are certainly rare in the United States, but as this story has captured the media attention, look for cities to be more vigilant in enforcing oversight over building inspections. The Miami mayor has announced a 30-day audit of all buildings over the age of 40 and urged other cities to do the same.
This case shows what happens when people take for granted the security of a structure. While the condominium association was informed that major structural repairs were needed, the threat of collapse does not appear to have been seriously contemplated. Building owners should take the time to inspect and understand reports that recommend building repairs, especially when they note issues with the foundation of a structure, and ask questions if they don’t understand implications of the report. Here the condominium association had evidence that they were aware their building needed repairs but, as of now, don’t have evidence of any action to resolve the issue for more than two years. Even if one chooses not to act, it is important to exercise due diligence and demonstrate that inaction was reasonable. It is important for a building owner to take the steps outlined to show that they were acting in a reasonably prudent manner and to work with an attorney to ensure compliance with regulatory and contractual provisions.